I return from my (academic) hiatus with a look back at the Best Picture nominees of the 88th Academy Awards. While my top pick didn’t win the plum (if you follow me online, you know how furiously passionate I am about it), I’m still delighted at the results. I can’t promise there will be no display of bad blood here (sorry in advance The Revenant, but you deserved your Oscars anyway. Sort of.). So here’s my take, counting down from the good to the best of 2015’s so-called best, and may the ceremonies to come prove to be more worthy and inclusive!
8. The Martian
Acclaimed director Ridley Scott returns to sci-fi fare and probably helmed one of the genre’s rare, ‘feel-good’ films, whose rousing thoughtfulness transcends from its extra-terrestrial setting. THE MARTIAN is more than a just a survival story of the titular character (which is also the same reason why Matt Damon would feel overshadowed). It is a celebration of genius that instills admiration to the men and women dedicated to pursuing the mystery of the vast truth beyond them. Familiar sci-fi elements run in its DNA but if there’s one thing THE MARTIAN successfully achieves (as compared to let’s say, Jurassic World), it invokes the natural sense of wonder and dread in space, and hope in humanity. Film-wise, THE MARTIAN is easily accessible thanks to the buoyant tone of Mark Watney’s (Damon) predicament. While his deadpan demeanour in lowering oxygen and supply levels makes him affable, it is his resilience that would make viewers root for him as he uproot himself from the red planet. Supporting characters orbiting Watney’s rescue mission seemed underutilized, but it was refreshing to see a strong female perspective in Jessica Chastain’s commander-at-large. In the end, my praises for the movie would be directed to the real astronauts and scientists, which I used to want to become when I was a child. (And I must admit on having fleeting memories of the superb Moon while watching). But the whole of THE MARTIAN does feel it serves a greater purpose – inspiring (not just promising young intellectuals) to believe in the impossible.
7. The Big Short
The eventual Best Adapted Screenplay winner could be described as a testosterone-filled tableau about the ‘winners’ of the 2008 global financial crisis. Comedy-drama THE BIG SHORT boasts of Hollywood’s A-listers who re-enact the gamble of their Wall Street-counterparts as they hedge against the impending credit crunch. Among the eight Best Picture nominees, it is the most informative and factual (with respect to Spotlight), made attuned for mainstream viewing through Adam McKay‘s crisp direction and rapid interplay that webs the ensemble’s storylines. Smooth-talking Ryan Gosling as a Deutsche Bank dealer is convincing while Brad Pitt keeps the movie interesting by playing a retired trader aiding two green capitalists. The financial implosion would not feel cathartic if not for Christian Bale’s manic spiritual animal as the brilliant hedge fund manager who first recognized the collapse of mortgage-backed securities. Guest stars keep the viewers abreast of the concepts popping out and their appearances are amusing, if not a diversion from the real-life occurrence of such global disaster. Personally, I associate myself with Steve Carell’s grouchiness towards his profession. Turns out that in the end, we have something in common: we are both out from the market.
6. The Revenant
I wasn’t surprised when THE REVENANT received its fair share of acclaim and criticism. The film that finally earned Leonardo DiCaprio his first Best Actor trophy had admirably immersed viewers in the breath-taking yet perilous wilderness whose natural beauty is impeccably captured by three-peat cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Director Alejandro Inarritu indulges on another masterful attempt towards perfection, this time through a man’s undying strength and unbreakable spirit (a virtuous subject as compared to the relentless ego of Birdman). As the titular character, DiCaprio’s commitment to the role was Herculean in his undaunted quest for survival and revenge. THE REVENANT delivered one of cinema’s rawest adventures but amidst the grit and gloss, I am left underwhelmed by the meat of the story. The film relies heavily on flashbacks to unearth Hugo Glass’ motivations that felt more of a forced intermission than an organic backstory. The running time is as laborious as the trek of Glass’ party back to the fort. But if there’s one thing that I’d call out for, is the lack of emotional potency from ogling the viciousness of man, animal and nature which impedes whatever thematic relevance remains in the story. THE REVENANT is no doubt, a tour de force of its three important elements and it would be unfair to pertain to it as a gloating project with Oscar ambitions (which it has achieved). But to say the least, I prefer the parts than the whole itself.
5. Bridge of Spies
The prolific partnership of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg reliably brought to life the good old glamor of period spyware in BRIDGE OF SPIES, remarkably understated and grounded despite being helmed by Hollywood’s heavyweights. That isn’t to say that the thriller, about an American lawyer (Hanks) who arranges a tense prisoner exchange, is slow-burner that fizzles until the climactic scene foreboded by the title. Written by Joel and Ethan Cohen, BRIDGE OF SPIES unravels the unique humanity of the situation channeled through James Donovan whose compassion, perceptiveness and professionalism were his weapons in thorny geopolitical negotiations and public persecution. Hanks finely embodied an ‘everyday’ man who committed himself to an extraordinary cause – a nuanced portrayal not quite resonated by Matt Damon in The Martian (just my opinion). But the film’s MVP (featuring one of 2015’s best performances) is Mark Rylance who won Best Supporting Actor as the wry and translucent Soviet spy. Rylance radiates a beguiling charm in Abel’s pensiveness and resignation that serves as the ying to Donovan’s determined yang. BRIDGE OF SPIES does not lose sight of its grim reality nor underplays the bitter aftertaste of war, but Donovan lulling back to his abode is a peaceful close that will usher the small victories (that he will be known for) to come.
Up next: The better half puts women on the spotlight.